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Recent television news acknowledging the methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) problems has brought attention to this subject once again. Although this matter really never died out, the Jan. 16 episode on CBS’s 60 Minutes program has shed new light on this subject for consumers, many of whom didn’t know this has become a regularly occurring problem in many areas.
In response to the Clean Air Act of 1990, the oxygenate MTBE was added to gasoline to provide a "cleaner" burn and help reduce air pollution. Although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies it as a possible human carcinogen and it continues to violate the Clean Water Act, MTBE remains in widespread use with few states presently taking action.
The American Water Works Association (AWWA) has called for immediate action from the Clinton Administration to address MTBE-contaminated water supplies. Jack Hoffbuhr, executive director of the AWWA, agrees that action must be taken to prevent further contamination.
Hoffbuhr has been the executive director of AWWA since 1996 after serving as deputy executive director since 1988. He has more than 23 years of hands-on experience in dealing with water utilities in design, construction, operation and training.
Prior to joining AWWA, Hoffbuhr held several positions in the Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service and spent two years designing wastewater and water supply facilities in the Peruvian Andes for the U.S. Peace Corps.
Representing the AWWA, Hoffbuhr spoke with us further on the topic of MTBE.
WQP How serious is the MTBE problem? And how many people is it affecting?
Hoffbuhr MTBE contamination of drinking water is a very serious problem for a number of reasons.
MTBE is extremely water-soluble; it doesn't take a lot of MTBE to contaminate a lot of drinking water. Even more troubling is that once MTBE is in the water, it has proven very difficult to remove.
MTBE contamination of drinking water sources around the country is increasing. In states that have had problems in the past, more are being identified. In states where MTBE contamination problems haven’t occurred previously, we now find contamination. This clearly is a growing problem that threatens more drinking water systems in America every day.
The EPA’s information on the scope of MTBE contamination, effective treatment methods for water suppliers and potential health risks to humans is woefully insufficient. AWWA and the AWWA Research Foundation (AWWARF) have committed themselves to filling in these information gaps so that MTBE’s impact on public health is more seriously considered by EPA in the future.
WQP Can a consumer test his own water for MTBE?
Hoffbuhr Consumers interested in the possibility of having their water tested for MTBE contamination should contact their local water provider. Private well owners should contact their local public health agency.
WQP Suddenly, there seems to be a lot of focus on the MTBE problem—partially due to the 60 Minutes episode that "uncovered" this problem (although we all know it’s not a new problem). What is your reaction to that program, how do you think the industry is reacting to it, and what, specifically, is the AWWA doing to address it?
Hoffbuhr AWWA was pleased to see 60 Minutes focus on an issue that has plagued—and will continue to plague—water systems around the country. The fact is MTBE contamination is a very difficult and potentially very expensive problem for water suppliers to address. Those that made the decision to incorporate MTBE into the Clean Air Act need to fully understand that and begin to consider how to assist water utilities in combating MTBE contamination immediately. AWWA is hopeful that by exposing the danger of the present situation to the American public, 60 Minutes has prompted the Clinton Administration and Congress to begin considering this a problem that will not go away without decisive action from them.
The drinking water profession already has spent substantial time and money on researching the problem, but more research is planned. In fact, the AWWARF already has initiated three new studies on MTBE. Two of the studies focus on treatment methods while the other study focuses on determining the extent of the MTBE contamination problem across the country. AWWA strongly believes that the drinking water profession is the best resource available in trying to effectively deal with MTBE contamination. No one is better suited to determine how to remove a relatively new contaminant from drinking water supplies than the people who have committed themselves to providing the public with safe drinking water. Make no mistake: The drinking water profession has no intention of waiting for the EPA to solve this problem. It’s gone on too long already.
WQP Are you working with any other organizations such as the EPA to reach a solution? Is the AWWA pushing for a ban, how would a ban effect water and air, and would it have any other effects (such as costs, etc.)?
Hoffbuhr Aside from the research noted above, AWWA has been working with EPA for years on the MTBE issue. In fact when EPA Administrator Carol Browner assembled a Blue Ribbon Panel to address the MTBE issue in 1998, the drinking water profession was represented on the panel by an employee of an AWWA utility member. The panel’s findings, which AWWA strongly endorses, were released in July 1999, and called on Congress, EPA and the states to take more aggressive action to protect drinking water sources from MTBE contamination. Those actions included calling on Congress to give states the ability to ban the use of MTBE in their jurisdiction.
Obviously, eliminating the use of MTBE as an oxygenate would diminish the threat of continued MTBE contamination of drinking water sources. However, questions about a ban’s impact on air quality and costs are best addressed by air quality experts and the oil industry.
WQP Which states are considered the main problem areas?
Hoffbuhr The problems at this point reside primarily in the west and in the northeast regions of the United States. The most well-known problems occurred in Maine and California. However, a recent survey conducted by the American Water Works Service on the scope of MTBE contamination around the country also found drinking water sources contaminated by MTBE in Connecticut, Indiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
WQP Which states are doing something to address/fix the MTBE problem?
Hoffbuhr California and Maine both have initiated programs to phase out MTBE use, and New York has reduced its MTBE standard for drinking water.
WQP Is the federal government involved with any solutions at this point?
Hoffbuhr To this point, the aforementioned Blue Ribbon Panel represents the most significant effort the government has made.
WQP Is this an international concern?
Hoffbuhr Although MTBE contamination is a threat to water sources anywhere it is used as an oxygenate, its widespread use in the United States has led the focus of research and concern to be primarily on the problem here in America.
WQP Is there an estimate on how much clean-up costs could be?
Hoffbuhr The City of Santa Monica alone expects its clean-up costs to exceed $150 million. Given that, AWWA projects a national clean up effort would cost more than $1 billion.
WQP What solutions are available, if any? Can another additive be used in gasoline that would solve the problem?
Hoffbuhr Other oxygenates, such as ethanol, exist, but AWWA strongly urges EPA to thoroughly research any alternative prior to its implementation as an alternative. We don’t want to make the same mistake twice. For specific information about effective alternatives to MTBE, consult with air quality and oil industry experts.
WQP Will something happen in 2000 that will decide the fate of MTBE?
Hoffbuhr AWWA has called on the Clinton Administration to work with Congress and the States to quickly address the MTBE problem. It is our hope that our call will be heard and that the appropriate steps will be taken to safeguard our nation’s drinking water from further contamination.
WQP Does the AWWA have any specific plans for 2000 for MTBE?
Hoffbuhr In 2000, AWWA, through the work of the AWWARF, will continue ongoing research efforts to determine the full extent of the MTBE problem and the best ways water providers can treat MTBE contamination. AWWA also will continue to urge the Clinton Administration to act quickly to better protect U.S. drinking water sources from contamination.
WQP Is there anything you would like to further address?
Hoffbuhr The MTBE problem clearly demonstrates the need to put public health above all other decisions when regulations are promulgated. Without question, MTBE’s impact on drinking water was underestimated—if considered at all—at the time the oxygenate regulation was created by EPA. Nevertheless, the drinking water profession remains committed to providing the public with the safest drinking water possible to consumers. To that end, AWWA and the AWWARF are dedicated to completing the research on MTBE’s impact on drinking water sources that should have been done years before MTBE use was authorized by EPA and became so widespread.
60 Minutes targeted the EPA for its confusion in mandating a clean air remedy without understanding its effects on drinking water and groundwater.
The most effective MTBE removal technologies the WQA recognizes are air-stripping and granular activated carbon.
NSF International added a reduction claim for MTBE to Table 4, Standard 53 for chemical reduction requirements in September 1999.
Various alternatives including ethanol have been suggested for use in replacement of methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE). On Jan. 16, CBS 60 Minutes aired a summary of public health and cleanup problems created by MTBE polluting the drinking and groundwater contamination affecting portions of the nation.
MTBE was identified as particularly troubling for government regulators and the industry to address because unlike traditional petroleum constituents, MTBE moves quickly to pollute water and is slow to degrade the environment, reported 60 Minutes.
Although contamination is fast and widespread, there are solutions available. Traditional methods for cleanup include excavation, air injection and pump-and-treat remediation systems. Oxygen-enhanced bioremediation of MTBE with products such as ORC provides advantages of cost-effectiveness, a rapid cleanup and cleanup in a non-invasive manner. The following are a few companies that offer solutions.